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Books We Write: Writing Food History

Author’s portrait by Heather Raub, FrontRoom Images

There’s no need for long introductions when it comes to Business Librarian Becky Diamond (BLD), accomplished author and productive blogger. However, Books We Read (BWR) took the opportunity to get to know her work a bit more on the occasion that Becky will manage the day-to-day responsibilities for Books We Read, along with our social media guru and blogger Lindsey Jones, in the Spring 2023 semester.

BWR: According to your LinkedIn profile, you are a “writer, researcher, librarian, foodie, historian.” We at Rutgers know you very well in the first three roles, as the Business Instruction Librarian and Books We Read contributor. But a foodie? This might sound more than just a descriptor to some, with negative connotations occasionally. What is a foodie in your dictionary? 

BLD: I know, “foodie” is actually not my favorite descriptor, but since it is commonly used as a hashtag on social media, it is now pretty mainstream. To me, a “foodie” is someone who has an appreciation of food. My main interest is food history, but I am open and interested in all types of food, cooking and restaurant styles and genres.

BWR: You are the author of two books and several articles related to food and cooking from the past. How did you become interested in culinary history?

BLD: It really was inherent in my background. My mom and three aunts all had home economics degrees (two from Douglass) and my grandmother had a master’s degree in nutrition (from Rutgers), so I grew up knowing a thing or two about food preparation. Then I really started getting more interested in food and cooking as a young adult. The history part came a bit later when I started writing my first book.

BWR: How did you find your actual topics to write about? Or did they find you, as it’s often the case with research?

BLD: The idea for my first book, about cooking school instructor Mrs. Goodfellow, actually came from a cooking magazine. I saw an article about cooking classes that mentioned her as the first cooking school instructor in the U.S. It intrigued me because she was based in Philadelphia, a city I have lived near all my life, but never knew about her. It gave me the idea to write about the history of cooking schools, which subsequently evolved into more of a biography of her life and influence. Doing the research for this book led to the topic for my second book, then doing the research for my second led to my third, and so on.

BWR: Your first book, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, features the legacy of an early nineteenth century widow, who ran not only a successful bakery and sweet shop, but also a small school where she taught cooking – without leaving behind a cookbook. How did you manage to track down her recipes?

BLD: I did quite a bit of research at several libraries that housed manuscript cookbooks, including The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, The Library Company of Philadelphia, The Winterthur Library in Delaware, The University of Pennsylvania and the Independence Historical Library. It was great fun and awe-inspiring going through these cookbooks and seeing the actual handwriting of the women who had attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s school.

BWR: What’s the significance of a single person in food history? How did Mrs. Goodfellow influence our food-related views and practices?

BLD: I think it is the fact that a single person can touch the lives of so many others. Countless women were “educated” at Mrs. Goodfellow’s, not only in the art of cooking and pastry making, but in etiquette and deportment too. She was known throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding area in the early to mid-1800s for both her fine baked goods and culinary instruction. Perhaps her most significant influence was the fact that she taught her students to list ingredients first when writing out recipes. Prior to this, they were mainly written out as a single paragraph, which was much more difficult to follow.

BWR:Your second book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner, is about America’s First Great Cookery Challenge, as its subtitle suggests. A competition between a group of New Yorkers and Philadelphians featured this winning, seventeen-course menu paired with wines and liquors prepared by James W. Parkinson in Philly. What kind of impact did this “food fight” have on dining in the United States later on?

BLD: This 1851 dinner was just one of several cooking “competitions” that took place between wealthy gentlemen in major U.S. cities in the nineteenth century and was kind of a preview of the Gilded Age excess that was so prevalent during that era. It introduced this type of fine dining to more than just the upper class. The middle class grew quite a bit in the nineteenth century, and more and more people emulated the upper class, particularly in terms of dining. It also made the à la russe (Russian style) of dining more mainstream, where courses were brought out by servants individually in succession, each a separate presentation in itself. Prior to this, formal dinners were served using the technique known as à la française (French style), where the meal was divided into just two or three courses and the food was attractively laid out on the table for the diners to see.

BWR: You have also published several articles. Researching any topic with a historical component is not only challenging and time consuming, but it also needs a good deal of discipline and outstanding organization skills. What can you share with the readers about your process, without uncovering all the secrets of the trade?

BLD: I’ll admit I am still rather old school in that it is easier for me to process research material if it is printed out. I then highlight relevant data and organize the papers into manila file folders. However, more and more historical data is online, and I am cognizant of the fact that all that paper is not good for the environment. So, for my third book, most of my research material was stored in various “virtual” file folders. Google docs is great for these types of folders and subfolders that can be easily organized and shared if working with others on a project. It also allows me to easily organize images. As for writing the book, I find it is easier to create each chapter as a separate document and then merge them at the end.

BWR: Recreating these old recipes must be quite a challenge, not only editing and rewriting them but replacing ingredients with their modern equivalents. How do like getting your hands dirty and experimenting? Is this your favorite part of the “writing” process?

This is actually both fun and nerve-wracking at the same time! It’s fun seeing how the recipe will turn out (and I know my regular taste tasters would agree), but it is a process that requires lots of detail and speculation. One false move and the recipe can be a failure, requiring me to start over. I do quite a bit of research beforehand, looking at different recipes from various eras to get a handle on the correct ingredients and measurements. This research is probably more interesting and fun to me than the actual cooking part.

BWR: You are also a Victorian Food Expert at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion. What kind of activities does that entail?

BLD: I contribute to the mansion’s blog and give workshops and presentations on historic food. I also do research to help with special exhibits and act as a greeter/expert for various events. I am also currently vice president (soon to be president, starting in January 2023) of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley, which explores the rich, diverse culture of the Delaware Valley region.

BWR: Your next book, The Gilded Age Cookbook, is forthcoming and will be published by Globe Pequot in August 2023. Can you give us a sneak peek?

BLD: Yes, it is now available for preorder, which is very exciting! The 1870s ushered in the era of the Gilded Age, a timeframe in America’s history that glittered with magnificent wealth on the surface, but bubbled underneath with corruption and social issues. A satirical phrase conceived by writer Mark Twain in his novel by the same name, the Gilded Age painted a picture of what was happening in the U.S. during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Organized into five chapters (Culinary Innovations, Outdoor Eats, Dining Out, By Invitation Only and Holidays), this cookbook reconstructs the Gilded Age era of lavish banquet tables set with snowy white linen tablecloths, delicate china and sparkling crystal glasses. Gilded Age details are melded with historic menus and recipes updated for contemporary kitchens, allowing modern cooks to duplicate meals and gatherings from the past while celebrating today.

BWR: What’s your favorite recipe that you discovered during your research?

BLD: Probably my favorite recipe (and one I have made time and time again) is a cookie called Jumbles. I refer to it as a delicately spiced butter cookie, very aromatic due an interesting combination of ingredients including nutmeg, mace and rosewater. Everyone who tries this cookie just loves it. It will be included in my next book, The Gilded Age Cookbook, (Globe Pequot) slated for release in August 2023.

BWR: What’s next?

BLD: I have been working on a history of processed food (to be published by Westholme) and have a proposal in the works for a Victorian Cookie Cookbook. I’d also love to write about Pierre Blot, America’s first “celebrity” chef. Chef Blot had a cooking school and traveled around the U.S. doing cookery demonstrations in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps I’ll even take a stab at historical fiction to tell his story.

BWR: Thank you for your time. We can’t wait to see your next book in print! Wishing you all the best.